The Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC), a 264-acre camp in northwestern New Jersey, suggests on T-shirts, water bottles, and its website that it is "A Place to Grow." This, despite being a concise summary of what is truly a multidimensional campus devoted to experiential education, didn't resonate with me while I sat in my dorm common room scrolling through what felt like thousands of listings for summer internships. "A Place to Grow" wasn't as important at the time as potential salary, living conditions, better-than-average food, and duration of work.
I grew up in a stereotypical suburb in Northern Virginia and attend school in central Maine, so the wilds of northwestern New Jersey were a shot in the dark for me. I knew PBC sought to reach students from New Jersey's urban areas, youth primarily from Trenton and Newark. The only prolonged contact I'd ever had with inner-city youth, challenges, or culture was through CNN, narrated by Anderson Cooper. PBC lifted that veil for me. Turns out, Anderson Cooper doesn't follow inner-city youth around to shield soft suburbanites from their tough truths. It hit me hard. I didn't realize how accustomed I'd grown to gated communities and golf courses; these kids were coming in with stories that made the stuff I saw on television look like an afternoon picnic.
My summer students and I were both in for the education of our lives.
Over time, I realized how comprehensive and accurate the PBC slogan really was. I wasn't surprised to hear that every program run in Blairstown was designed to encourage strong bonds and relationships, to facilitate teamwork, or to teach children to communicate their feelings instead of lashing out, but I hadn't expected to be so moved myself. I'd never known anyone whose first instinct in a disagreement was to raise their fists, who truly had to worry about street violence on the walk home from fourth grade, or who'd only ever seen a lake or an unpolluted river on television.
So I had to grow. As staff, I had been taught that I should work to engage with my participants where they were, meaning I would be the one who adapted to them, who understood their trials and tried to relate as well as I could. This made sense, and I thought I was prepared for it, but I struggled. I constructed great relationships with the kids, but when it came to talking about trust and respect, one of my first group members interrupted, asking, "Do you know how hard Trenton is?"
I decided to be honest. I told them that I'd done my research on the area, but I'd never lived there, so, no, I couldn't relate firsthand. The conversation continued until we came to a mutual understanding that in a perfect (or better) world, one's environment shouldn't have such an impact on how respectful one is. It was a moment of realization for all of us, and it made my relationship with the kids stronger. We were learning together. I lost the title of "facilitator" and became one of them, at least for those few days. We came from different places but weren't discouraged from learning from each other, setting aside preconceived stereotypes and helping to develop a cultural understanding. We grew through interactions that would have been impossible without the Princeton-Blairstown Center.
Since that first conversation, I grew better about meeting my groups where they were, understanding their backgrounds, and helping them to develop communication, teamwork, and self-help skills they otherwise may not have had an opportunity to refine. My salary, living conditions, and better-than-average food were what they were, but more importantly, I grew with every group that visited, and I saw most of my students do the same.
Sam Scott is a sophomore studying English and philosophy at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He grew up hiking, biking, and backpacking around Virginia's Shenandoah Mountains, and hopes to continue writing for the benefit of those less fortunate than he. He spent the summer of 2019 as a Facilitator at the Princeton-Blairstown Center's award-winning Summer Bridge Program.